Highlights of Amazon Prime Instant Video, 2016

I mentioned on Facebook that I was enjoying watching Occupied, a Norwegian political thriller, and several friends asked for other recommendations. So here — in no particular order — is what I’ve been watching on Amazon Prime Instant Video this year. [Edited to add: Somehow I forgot to mention Preacher; that has been added since the original publication of this piece.] A separate post has recommendations from Netflix UK:

Scifi and fantasy

The Man in the High Castle

A 2015 alternate-history dystopian thriller based on Philip K Dick’s novel of the same name, The Man in the High Castle is a runaway success of Amazon’s original programming efforts, though it’s done surprisingly poorly for awards.

In their reality, FDR is assassinated in 1933, so the US is unprepared for World War II. The Nazis drop an atomic bomb on Washington DC in December 1945 and they partition the US with the Japanese Empire, leaving a neutral zone in the Rockies. Our main characters are Juliana Crain and Frank Frink, a couple in San Francisco, capital of the Japanese Pacific States, played by Alexa Davalos and Rupert Evans, and their friend Ed McCarthy (DJ Qualls), plus Joe Blake, a Nazi agent from the Reich’s American capital in New York, played by Luke Kleintank and his boss, Rufus Sewell’s SS Obergruppenführer John Smith. The head of the SF kempeitai, Inspector Kido (Joel de la Fuente) and trade minister Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) are also key characters.

The first season’s plot kicks off in 1962 with Juliana and Frank discovering newsreel footage called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, showing another reality (not ours), with GIs celebrating in Times Square at the end of WW2. This plot plays out across a background of a cold war between the Nazis and Japan, where the uneasy peace is threatened as Hitler’s health deteriorates.

The show is visually amazing, with production design and VFX being worth the view alone; I need to update my Pinterest board with some of the delights of season 2.

Both seasons are included with Amazon Prime; a 3rd season is not yet confirmed, but cast and crew are hopeful.

Rami Malek as Elliot Alderson, the show’s protagonist

Mr Robot

This show summarises like a tick-list of “how to make a programme for Owen”: a geek on the autism spectrum, with mental health problems, wants to bring down global capitalism by hacking — and he’s played by Rami Malek? Shut up and take my money!

Even without that obvious set of hooks for my attention, Mr Robot (2015–) is an outstanding piece of television. Showrunner Sam Esmail consulted well, so the copious hacking thankfully does not make painful viewing for those of us who know what an IP address is. On the subject of IPs, visit the ones you see on-screen — there are Easter eggs aplenty.

The show has won a crapload of awards, and is definitely one of the best things to come to TV this decade. Both seasons are included with Amazon Prime and a 3rd season is due for episodic release later in 2017.

Daniel Wu as Sunny, regent to Baron Quinn

Into the Badlands

Into the Badlands (2015–) is a martial-arts fantasy drama set in a post-apocalyptic feudal reality without guns, very much of the style of Hong Kong action films. Daniel Wu stars in the lead role as a motorcycle-riding, katana-wielding assassin; showrunners Al Gough and Miles Millar are a long-term pair renowned for Smallville, amongst other things. Young star Aramis Knight plays a character discovering hidden powers around which much of the plot revolves; Emily Beecham is “The Widow”, a rival baron to Sunny’s boss Quinn (Marton Csokas). Wu’s fellow ’90s–’00s HK actor–director and Cantopop star Stephen Fung is fight director, with HK veteran Huan-Chiu Ku choreographing. And I love Mike Shinoda’s theme music.

Quoting Robert Ito in The New York Times:

The series features two major fights per episode. Keen-eyed fans will spot homages to several well-known martial arts scenes, from the rain-soaked swordfight in Wong Kar-wai’s “The Grandmaster” to Bruce Lee’s battle royale in the Japanese dojo in “Fist of Fury”. The level of violence equals those of Hong Kong action films, with eviscerations, snapped necks and impalements galore. In one scene, a master swordswoman named The Widow juliennes a victim so neatly that all that’s left of him is a crimson cloud.

Season 1 is included with Amazon Prime; season 2 is set to air in 2017.

Halle Berry as astronaut Molly Woods

Extant

In the first episode of 2014–15’s thriller series Extant, Halle Berry’s character Molly Woods returns home from a 13-month solo space mission to discover she’s pregnant. Goran Višnjić plays her husband, a robotics engineer; their son Ethan (Pierce Gagnon) is a humanoid robot and the prototype for his Humanichs programme. Steven Spielberg exec-produces this Mickey Fisher-created show with a beautiful vision of the future that, unsurprisingly, reminds me of 2001’s Spielberg/‌Kubrick film AI. Both seasons are included with Amazon Prime.

Period pieces

Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan as Claire Randall and Jamie Fraser

Outlander

Based on one of my mother’s favourite book series, Outlander (2014–) is a portal fantasy following nurse Claire Randall who falls from 1945’s Inverness into the Jacobite Risings and Highland Clearances. I’ve only seen the first few episodes thusfar, but it looks really good and was popular enough that Starz ordered a second season on the basis of the pilot alone.

Ronald D. Moore works with Diana Gabaldon to adapt her novels, with Tobias Menzies playing Claire’s husband Jack in the 20th century and Crown Army captain “Black Jack” Randall in the 18th. Bear McCreary provides music, as he also has for The Walking Dead, Agents of SHIELD, Black Sails and Constantine. The show has won several awards — particularly for Caitriona Balfe’s work, but also a Scottish Gaelic Award for dialect coach Àdhamh Ó Broin.

Amazon Prime includes both seasons, with a third season in production.

Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell as Philip and Elizabeth Jennings

The Americans

I’m a sucker for Cold War era period pieces and The Americans (2013–) does not disappoint.

Set in the early days of the Reagan era, Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell play Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, a pair of deep-cover KGB agents in DC. While we see a lot of spycraft — which seems to involve getting laid quite a lot more than you’d expect and enough disguises to make Alias look under-dressed — the show is fundamentally about the Jennings’s marriage and kids (played by Holly Taylor and Keidrich Sellati), who are unaware that their parents are anything other than normal American travel agents. Showrunner Joe Weisberg is a former CIA agent.

Noah Emmerich plays their next-door neighbour Stan, an FBI counter-espionage agent, and Margo Martindale has won 2 Emmys for her performance as the Jennings’s KGB handler but Alison Wright and Annet Mahendru play the characters I most want to hug, secretaries at the FBI and Soviet embassy respectively, who each become more deeply embroiled in the machinations of superpower rivalries. On top of everything else, the era-appropriate soundtrack is every bit as good as you could hope. The show has won the American Film Institute Awards for being one of their 10 favourite TV programmes every year it has aired.

The first 3 seasons are included with Amazon Prime, with season 4 available at £16·99 for the season or £2·49 per HD episode; season 5 is due to air in 2017.

Adam Pålsson and Adam Lundgren as Rasmus and Benjamin

Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves

A 3-part miniseries set in Stockholm during the height of the AIDS crisis, Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves (Torka aldrig tårar utan handskar, 2012) is more traumatic than you might expect. Swedish novellist Jonas Gardell adapts his own trilogy — books called Love, Disease and Death, in case the setting still seems too subtle for you.

The screenplay follows Rasmus (Adam Pålsson), a 19-year-old moving from rural Värmland to come out in Stockholm, who meets Benjamin (Adam Lundgren), a Jehovah’s Witness coming to terms with his faith and sexuality.

Being set in the early 1980s, it’s no spoiler to say that pretty much everyone dies; this is in no way a gentle view on how AIDS destroyed a generation of queer men. It’s a powerful piece of television, reminiscent of HBO’s production of Angels in America, but you’ll definitely need to be in the right frame of mind and you should line up something upbeat to follow it — even the memory of 1 scene in the 3rd part still moves me to tears a couple of years after first watching it.

The miniseries is no longer included with Amazon Prime and is priced at £6·99, or £4·99 in SD.

Thrillers and noir

Jamie Dornan as serial killer Paul Spector and Gillian Anderson as DSI Stella Gibson

The Fall

Probably the best thriller the BBC has commissioned this decade, The Fall (2013–16) sees Gillian Anderson’s DSI Stella Gibson seconded from the Met to the PSNI to investigate a long-running murder case; it quickly becomes apparent that the case is one of a serial killer hunting and killing professional women in Belfast. This is no whodunit — we know Jamie Dornan’s Paul Spector is the culprit from the first episode — but rather the screenplay pays more attention to the killer leading an otherwise normal-seeming life, with a wife and family.

Clearly, the show should be accompanied with a content warning for sexual violence, but it’s an exceptional series with a handful of awards.

Seasons 1 and 2 are included with Amazon Prime, season 3 is available at £5·99, or £4·99 in SD.

Mathieu Kassovitz as Guillaume Debailly, codename Malotru

The Bureau

French drama The Bureau (Le Bureau des légendes, 2015–) is a political thriller following Mathieu Kassovitz’s character Guillaume, a spy for the DGSE in their deep-cover department returning from 6 years in Damascus trying to reconnect with his own life and family.

Season 2 focuses more closely on Sara Giraudeau’s Marina, who Guillaume had been training in season 1, as she heads under cover. In both seasons, Léa Drucker plays a psychiatrist newly introduced to the bureau.

Le Figaro has described it as the best TV series ever made in France; it was Canal+’s biggest hit since 2012’s Les Revenants, which it outsold internationally.

Seasons 1 and 2 are both included with Amazon Prime; a third season is on order.

Trapped

Icelandic murder-mystery thriller Trapped (Ófærð, 2015–) is wonderful Scandi-noir, set in Seyðisfjörður, a remote town isolated by a storm.

Ólafur Darri Ólafsson plays Andri, chief of police returned from Reykjavík amid some controversy, with his small team investigating the discovery of a headless naked torso in the fjord in the absence of detectives from the capital.

We also know that, 7 years earlier, a fire killed the younger sister of Andri’s ex-wife, an accident for which Baltasar Breki Samper’s character Hjörtur is blamed; his return as a crew-member on a cruise ship visiting when the corpse is discovered is not universally welcomed.

As with any small town, a host of secrets bubbles under the surface, with people-smuggling, shady business deals and the prospect of major Chinese investment in the port adding to the plotting and scheming.

The first season is included with Amazon Prime; a second series is on order.

Everything else

Amy Landecker, Jeffrey Tambor, Gaby Hoffmann and Jay Duplass as the Pfefferman family

Transparent

Amazon Studios’ first big hit, Transparent (2014–) is a comedy drama following the Pfefferman family as their father (Jeffrey Tambor) announces she is transgender. Maura’s transition plays against a background of dysfunctional and complex lives for all her children and her ex-wife, portrayed by Judith Light. Maura is guided by 2 trans friends who are both educators at the LA LGBT Center, played by trans actresses Alexandra Billings and Trace Lysette. Frequent use of flashbacks helps reveal further family secrets — and, in season 2, some Weimar-era family history.

Showrunner Jill Soloway was inspired by her father’s transition and hopes to use the series to explore ideas of gender identity through a “wounded father being replaced by a blossoming femininity”. She enacted a “transfirmative action program”, hiring transgender applicants in preference to cisgender ones at every opportunity. The show has won plaudits aplenty, including a Peabody Award for season 2, GALECA Dorian Awards and GLAAD Media Awards.

3 seasons are includes with Amazon Prime, with a 4th season on order.

Joseph Gilgun as Cassidy, an Irish vampire, Dominic Cooper as the titular Jesse Custer and Ruth Negga as Tulip O’Hare, Jesse’s gun-toting ex.

Preacher

A late addition to this list, as I have no idea how I forgot to include it before, but AMC’s Preacher (2016–) is one of the funniest, darkest shows being made atm.

IMDb blurbs the show with “After a supernatural event at his church, a preacher enlists the help of a vampire to find God”, which is probably enough to entice in several of my friends. This adaptation — by Sam Catlin with Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen — of the cult Vertigo comic book series of the late 1990s, from Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon, is effectively a prequel to the books; the adapting team wanted to give us a taste of the preacher actually doing some preaching before they took viewers to more-familiar storylines.

The casting is exceptional and Rotten Tomatoes’ 90% approval rating comes with a mention of “gore, glee, and guile”; a pretty accurate summary.

Season 1 is included with Amazon Prime, with a second season on order.

The New Yorker Presents…

The New Yorker Presents… is a lovely video-magazine, an eclectic compilation of short-form documentaries, poetry, cartoon illustration and comedy in 30-minute slices. For anyone who enjoys the work of the magazine itself, the TV version is a delight, highly regarded by reviewers on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic.

The 11-episode first season, which was released episodically in early 2016, is included with Amazon Prime.

Fear the Walking Dead

Spun off from the popular horror show, Fear the Walking Dead (2015–) is much more chilling. I’ve not yet seen season 2, so I can’t speak for how well it handles being post-apocalyptic, but season 1 makes exceptional work of the impending doom.

As an example of the suspenseful tone, we are taken through the entire pilot where the only character who has actually seen a zombie being Frank Dillane’s character Nick, who was high at the time. The 6 episodes of the first season wend their way through the end of the world as a couple of families try to make their way to safety.

Season 1 is included with Amazon Prime, season 2 is available at £15·99 and season 3 is due to air later in 2017.

Nasser Faris, Mehdi Dehbi, Noah Silver, Ashraf Barhom, Moran Atias, Jennifer Finnigan, Adam Rayner, Anne Winters, Justin Kirk, Fares Fares and Alice Krige.

Tyrant

FX’s political thriller and family drama Tyrant (2014–16) can be a little preposterous at times, but very good fun nonetheless.

Adam Rayner plays Bassam “Barry” al-Fayeed, second son of a Middle-Eastern president-for-life, who returns from his self-imposed exile for his nephew’s wedding but gets drawn into a political crisis when his father dies in the midst of growing popular revolt. Alice Krige is great as the matriarch, Ashraf Barhom plays Jamal, Barry’s unstable elder brother and the new president, with Moran Atias playing Leila, Jamal’s wife. Noah Silver and Mehdi Dehbi playing Barry’s son and his cousin’s bodyguard explore the Middle East’s treatment of homosexuality and the advance of Da’esh provides inspiration for much of season 2. Some of the scenes involving sexual violence against women could certainly have been better written, however.

The first 2 seasons are included with Amazon Prime, the third and final seasons is available at £13·99.

Gabriel Luna as Tony Bravo

Matador

New English-language, Latinx-focussed channel El Rey launched at the end of 2013 with Matador and a serial adaptation of From Dusk till Dawn. The latter was far more successful, but this football-focussed action drama was underrated.

Gabriel Luna stars as Tony Bravo, a DEA agent seconded to the CIA to work undercover as a professional player for Los Angeles Riot, a soccer team owned by Alfred Molina’s Andrés Galan, who may not be the innocent businessman he seems. The show is light-hearted, with Rotten Tomatoes putting it well in their description as “fast-paced, silly fun that benefits from not taking itself too seriously”.

The full season is included with Amazon Prime.

Jean-Claude van Damme in the title role

Jean-Claude van Johnson

Another show that could never be accused of taking itself too seriously is one of 2016’s Amazon Pilots season, Jean-Claude van Johnson.

Already greenlit for a 2017 series début, the half-hour pilot is a treat of action comedy, with the IMDb summary telling you everything you need to know:

A famous action movie hero and martial arts star comes out of retirement to assume his alter ego as undercover private contractor named Jean-Claude Van Johnson. He must also deal with ageing and his handler Vanessa, the ex he still loves.

Only the pilot is yet available but is included with Amazon Prime.

The images are all used without permission, for the purpose of criticism and review under section 30(1) of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

This article is dedicated to the public domain under the terms of the Creative Commons Zero licence. Feel free to translate, copy, excerpt, share, disseminate and otherwise spread it far and wide. You don’t need to ask me, you don’t need to tell me. Just do it!

 by the author.

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🇪🇺🏳️‍🌈🏴󠁧󠁢󠁷󠁬󠁳󠁿♿⧖ Mainly-gay, mainly-Welsh political geek; proud social justice warrior+trans ally. @WikiLGBT, @OpenRightsGroup, ex- @mySociety. he/him

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Owen Blacker

Owen Blacker

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🇪🇺🏳️‍🌈🏴󠁧󠁢󠁷󠁬󠁳󠁿♿⧖ Mainly-gay, mainly-Welsh political geek; proud social justice warrior+trans ally. @WikiLGBT, @OpenRightsGroup, ex- @mySociety. he/him